Whatever else he wrote (including more than 3,000 songs for more than 45 Broadway and film scores), Irving Berlin may well have created America's three most famous songs. "There's No Business Like Show Business," "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" -- not bad for a kid who left Belarus at 5 and wrote only in the key of F-sharp (That's using all of the black keys on the piano.)
Berlin was there at the beginning of the American Musical Theater and supplied the form with a huge number of standards: "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Steppin' Out With My Baby" ... let's just say that Berlin's work is at the center of the American cultural experience.
Unfortunately for him (and most composers and lyricists back then), this glorious music is encased in some of the worst shows imaginable. The plots exist solely to give the showgirls time to change into another scanty outfit. And, as a bonus, often these silly shows were racist as well.
Which is why, when musicals from the '40s and earlier are revived, they're nearly always rewritten. Annie Get Your Gun, one of Berlin's biggest hits, opened on Broadway in 1946, received an important revival in 1966 and then played in New York in 1999, starring Bernadette Peters.
Annie is a fictive account of the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The original script, by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, had a field day playing up the worst stereotypes of Native Americans, and Peter Stone's 1999 rewrite strives to fix some of the gross racism.
Stone's adaptation, however, is a bizarre blend of 1860s events, 1940s attitudes and a decidedly 1990s sensibility. It might still be offensive ... if it made any sense.
But now, as then, people go to see Annie for the songs, and Berlin doesn't let you down. By and large, the same can be said of the Pittsburgh CLO production. The choreography hardly registers and the sets are practically nonexistent, but if you focus on the songs you'll enjoy the abundance of fine singers who make up the company. And fortunately, for stage pizzazz and presence, Jenn Colella, playing Annie, is a true delight.
Annie Get Your Gun continues through Sun., Aug. 3. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-456-6666.
- Photo courtesy of Matt Polk.
- Ich bin ein Berlin-er: Matt Ashford and Jenn Colella in Pittsburgh CLO's Annie Get Your Gun.